Alberta Politics
Brian Brennan, at left in cap, on the picket line at the Calgary Herald. Renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood can be seen in the centre of the photo. To her right in hat is mystery thriller author Grant McKenzie. (Photo: Calgary Herald Strike Archive).

Brian Brennan, 77, elegant wordsmith, musician, courageous trade unionist

Posted on February 22, 2021, 1:09 am
5 mins

Brian Brennan, elegant wordsmith, storyteller, professional musician and brave leader of the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000, died yesterday. He was 77.

For many years at the Herald, Brian specialized in writing obituaries, each a polished gem of a few hundred words. Often they celebrated the lives of remarkable people whose deaths most journalists would nevertheless have ignored because they were not people of wealth, power or connections, and whose lives were therefore deemed too “ordinary” for attention.

Brian some years later doing the bookshop circuit for one of the dozen books of biography and social history he wrote after leaving daily journalism (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

With more poetry than the readers of a daily newspaper could expect, week after week, Brian would give such folk the memorable send-offs they deserved. 

Characteristically, when his daughter Nico Brennan announced his death on social media last night, she noted that her dad had written his own obituary. “I once made a living writing the obits of other people,” he began. “Here I get to write my own.

“My story began in Dublin, Ireland on Oct. 4, 1943,” he continued. “I received the gift of life and held it close for 77 years. Returning the gift wasn’t easy. But it was always meant to be and I accepted that. No tears, no regrets. I tried to savour every moment, the winters as well as the summers, the springs and the autumns.” That obit is found here. 

Brian’s years penning obituaries for the Herald set the stage for a successful post-strike career writing a dozen books of biography and social history, most of them focused on Alberta. A true raconteur who never lost his musical Irish brogue, Brian was as entertaining speaking as he was making music or crafting words on a page. 

His memoir, Leaving Dublin, Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, contains the best and most accurate account of the strike at the Herald, a pivotal event in both our lives as Brian once noted. His version was certainly more generous and graceful than anything I could have written on the topic. 

Brian led the union bargaining committee in our quixotic effort to bring a little workplace democracy and decency to the Herald.

Leaving Dublin, 2011 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

But Leaving Dublin was about much more than that. “I certainly never would have expected to be engaged by the travails of an Irish lad learning to play the piano in the early 1950s, or the start of the same youth’s career as a clerk in the Irish civil service, or even scuttlebutt from the Canadian music scene in the 1970s,” I wrote in my review. “But the pages flew by! And, by god, they will for you too …”

Brian is survived by Nico and Zelda, his wife of 53 years. In his obit, he remembered the day he met Zelda in Halifax in 1968, where he was making his living playing the piano. He was a deft touch with the accordion, too, making converts of many who until they met Brian thought they couldn’t abide that instrument! 

Brian ended his personal obit with a tribute to his comrades-in-arms in the struggle at the Herald, “the surviving members of the Club of 93” – that is, the 93 union members who stuck it out to the bitter end after eight months on the picket line. “‘So, fill to me the parting glass,’ the old song said,” he concluded. “‘Good night and joy be with you all.’”

To you, as well, Brian. To you as well. 

4 Comments to: Brian Brennan, 77, elegant wordsmith, musician, courageous trade unionist

  1. Lars

    February 22nd, 2021

    I’m sorry to hear that he’s gone.

    A very nice tribute to him, David.

    Reply
  2. Scotty on Denman

    February 22nd, 2021

    I’m gonna hafta read that book, not least because I find picket line tales enlightening.

    My friend and musical accompaniment, Del Phillips, and I were once invited to perform with a number of musicians and wordsmiths at a labour (Canadian spelling) themed night at the big theatre in downtown Seattle, during the 40th Anniversary of the Folk Festival —maybe about a decade ago (biggest stage I’ve ever been on—likely ever will be). My squeeze and I were billeted with, naturally, a local labour activist (and singer in the fabulous Seattle Labor Choir) and the after party were songs and stories.

    But the best one I heard, however, was on the car ride to our billet, a fair ways outta the city. One fella told us all about the big strike at Boeing. It was fascinating. He said the strike was so long and so big the city registered a mini-baby-boom confidently correlated to the strike. He said,”I was driving with the company president [to a negotiating venue], he asked me to write down all our union’s demands—‘on this’: and he handed me a matchbook!”

    But I recall most how he explained (at the after party) how much not only his union, but the whole community learned about human nature, cooperation, altruism and good will by the time it was all done—“and it sure didn’t start out that way!”

    I’ve only been on a few pickets, but they were all very interesting too.

    Very nice tribute, DJC. Condolences with your loss.

    Reply
  3. Abs

    February 22nd, 2021

    Oh, but he could cut people to ribbons with words, and he did so many times in his reviews. He was, you might say, curmudgeonly at times, all part of his larger-than-life persona. He earned a bit of a reputation in the theatre scene that way. Maybe it even brought higher standards to the theatre scene in his adopted city? Maybe that is what Brian intended.

    Reply
  4. David Grant

    February 22nd, 2021

    Thanks for your tribute. I wasn’t aware of his role as a trade unionist which is good. I remember seeing his picture from the Calgary Herald years ago but I never did read any of his work but might take a look at some of it. I would like to know what others thought about his book on Ernest Manning. I have heard that his portrayal is a bit too positive? It would be good to know.

    Reply

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